Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Witch's Brew of Glass

Glass pumpkin evocative of chalcedony glass
Courtesy of  Smithsonian Museum store.
In honor of Halloween, we will take a detailed look at chalcedony glass; this is one of, if not the most colorful types of glass ever made. In the seventeenth century, it was extremely dangerous for glassmakers and artists, containing a veritable “witch’s brew” of toxic materials. In his 1612 book, L’Arte Vetraria, glassmaker Antonio Neri presents three recipes of which he is clearly very proud. Each of the three is attended by a complex list of ingredients. He describes the end result this way:
It will be adorned with so many graceful and beautiful areas of undulations, and enhanced with the play of diverse, lively, flaming colors, that truly it will seem nature cannot attain so great a height or grand a prize. [1]
In the same passage, Neri explains the importance of purifying each ingredient and eliminating all contamination. In so doing, he provides a fascinating insight into the thinking of an alchemist. He writes:
There is no doubt that in this art, when the ingredients are well prepared, they permeate the glass with dazzling lively colors. Impurities will ordinarily impede the entry of the tinctures into the glass, and prevent their intimate unification. However, when you open the colors of the metals well, and separate them from their impurities and sediment, their beauty will always by far surpass those that are common and ordinarily made in the furnace. [2]
To Neri’s mind, the metals used as pigments must undergo a process of “opening.” Once this was done, each metal’s characteristic color or “tincture” was free to permeate the glass, provided it was free of impurities. Today we might say that by reducing each metal into an extremely fine powder, the individual atoms more easily disperse in the glass. Neri’s “opening” process usually involved dissolving a pure metal in an acid and then slowly evaporating the liquid, resulting in a fine powder. Most color arises because, once in the glass,  the metal atoms block some parts of the spectrum, but not others. The result is that each metal gives rise to its own hue and only because it is dispersed in the oxygen rich environment of the glass matrix. 

 The striking point here is how the alchemist’s model was a perfectly adequate description for the times, in the same way that the atomic model works for us. Unfortunately, there was less awareness of the negative health consequences in some of these preparations. The evaporation of powerful acids could (and can) certainly cause acute respiratory and tissue irritation. However there were far more insidious dangers lurking in Neri’s chalcedony recipes.
Ribbed vessel, chalcedony glass, 17th century, 
 Museo del Monastero di Santa Giulia, Brescia.

In his first prescription, he dissolves silver, mercury, cobalt, manganese, copper and iron. [3] Some of these have been prepared with sulfur which also ends up in the mix. He evaporates it to a powder and adds it to well seasoned, good quality clear glass along with pulverized chimney soot. He notes “When you stir [the molten glass] thoroughly it gives off a definite blue smoke.” Specifically hazardous in this recipe is the formation of mercury fumes, which are extremely toxic to breathe. 

He advises that in the furnace the glass appears “as red as fire,” but that “master craftsman always pinches off the glass for the job with nippers, and reheats it, in order to make waves, undulations and interplays of the most beautiful colors.” The reheating process is known to modern glassmakers as “striking,” a maneuver that brings out surprising color in some glass formulations. He suggests that this chalcedony can be used to form drinking glasses to more shapely cups, saltshakers, flower vases and similar vessels.

In his second and more sophisticated preparation Neri dissolves the materials in groups, in six separate flasks, only then combining them. He also adds new materials: lead, zinc, “blue painters enamel,” antimony and red varnish. The final recipe for chalcedony introduces new purification procedures and increases the number of separate flasks to nine. Additional ingredients include metal sulfides, ultramarine, tin, arsenic (read: death's calling card) and crimson paint. 

It is tempting to dismiss a few of these ingredients, like red varnish, or pulverized chimney soot; organic materials that would readily decompose in the heat of the furnace. However, Neri is known to have been a careful experimenter and these additions may well have had an effect on the melt, even if not in terms of color. Of the third recipe, which Neri developed in Antwerp, he wrote: 
Many Portuguese gentlemen in the practice of appraising jewels said that nature could do no better. This was the most beautiful chalcedony that I have ever made in my life. While it may be quite laborious and take a long time to produce, the result is fit for a king. I presented His Excellency, the Prince of Orange, with two vessels of this chalcedony, which delighted him greatly. [4]

[1] Neri 1612, p. 34.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Manganese and cobalt were unknown as distinct metals, but were used in their oxide forms, mined as minerals.
[4] Neri 1612, p. 48. The prince of orange was Philip William.
* This post first appeared here on 31 Oct 2014.

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